A look at this week’s opponent…
The Michigan Wolverines come into this civil war battle with the Michigan State Spartans with a 4-2 (2-0) record on the season. After getting demolished by Alabama in the opener (the Spartans know the feeling from their Capital One Bowl loss), they have picked up their play considerably.
This will be the best Wolverine team that Mark Dantonio has faced in his tenure. The Wolverines are certainly not a top ten team, but neither is MSU. In this game it isn’t about records, it is about pride.
When MSU has the ball…
I think Dantonio said it best about the Spartans offense, “We’d like to score more points. Been there before, understand that aspect of it. The reality of the situation, we have three players on offense that played last year on a constant basis for us, whether it be injuries, graduation, whatever it is. We have Dan France, Chris McDonald, Le’Veon Bell playing for us. The rest of our guys are new. They’re gaining experience as we go. They’ve made some plays.”
I wrote after the Iowa debacle that MSU had to go on the attack. I wasn’t saying they have to go to the run and shoot offense. What I was saying is that they must go on the attack and take what the defense gives them. Until the Spartans do that, every team they face will follow the blue print laid out by Alabama. They will load the box and make the Spartans win through the air. I am fine with that.
I trust Andrew Maxwell and the emerging WR group. They are a finished product? No, but they are significantly improved. The Spartans on offense need to be the hunter instead of the hunted.
UM head coach Brady Hoke said of this year’s MSU offense, “Offensively, I think (Andrew) Maxwell is doing a great job and can throw it. And so I think we all grow up and we all mature differently. I think both teams are very different than they were a year ago.”
Dion Sims, the MSU TE, will be a game time decision. With that said, I expect him to play. I want to see MSU come out on the attack. If UM stacks the box, which I expect, I want to see them throw the ball and force them to back off. The ONLY way that UM defense can stop the MSU running attack is to load the box. They are not a great team defending the run without the box stacked.
I want to see MSU use the bubble screen, slants, play action, and other short yardage aerial maneuvers to make Michigan back up. They can and should take their shots downfield, but we don’t need it 20 times a game. The Spartans are more than capable, along with utilizing the TE and RB in passing, to make UM have to come off their aggressive stance that I expect this game.
A big key will be first down. Do the Spartans come out and act the prey or do they attack? That will tell the story of this game. The Spartans consistently stress balance. I get it, but if they have to pass 60% of the time or run 60% of the time to win, who cares. They must attack.
The MSU offense isn’t potent, but they are capable of scoring enough to win. The question is will they be told to attack or not. Again it isn’t about passing or running, attacking is about taking what the defense gives you.
I have an interesting anecdote for you. Bill Belichick is widely considered among the elite football coaches of all time. Each and every week, according to people that I know who have worked for, do work for and have played for him, he does the same thing.
While game planning defensively, he always says what do they do best and how do we take that away. On offense he asks what will they give us and how do we exploit that. That is why you see them running the fast hurry up Oregon offense one week and the slow down ground and pound play action game the next. This may shock you, but as one of his key people told me once, “It is funny. Bill is so simple. He realizes that it is a simple game. That is why he is so successful. He isn’t married to a certain style he wants to play with, he is married and committed to winning.” I agree.
When MSU is on defense…
Denard, Denard, Denard. That is the straw that stirs the drink in Ann Arbor. On a personal note, I love the kid. Such a fine young man. He is a young man of character, integrity, and is great for the game of football. As a father, setting aside his talent on the gridiron, he is exactly what you would want your son to be; a great person as well as an incredibly talented young man.
Having said that, he is their offense. His WR group is much better, but he is still a thrower and a not a great passer. With better WRs and TEs that helps him, but he isn’t close to the passer that Braxton Miller is.
That opens up some great opportunities for the Spartans. They must keep their DEs at a wide nine technique in order to contain him and keep him in the pocket, but they must apply pressure. Denard is NOT a natural QB. If UM had a better option at QB, he would be more of a Keshawn Martin/Slash role. Because he is NOT a natural QB you want to force him to have to make snap decisions. MSU has written the book on how to contain him and they have.
If MSU can stop and hold Braxton Miller and the OSU offense to 17 points, you have every reason to be encouraged for this weekend.
Mark Dantonio couldn’t stress enough how important Denard is for the UM attack. He addressed it by saying, “I think the Denard is a tremendous football player. He is a central theme in whatever we’ve done defensively, is to try to stop him. I think a lot of things center around a quarterback like that, whether you’re playing Braxton Miller or him because they’re such play‑makers. They can take a bad play and make it a great play. That’s what we’ve seen him do through his four years there. How we play him, I guess it’s a little bit game planning things, those type of things, a little bit more technical. But I do know we need to make sure we know where he’s at at all times, that 16 is on the playing field. He can make a play at any given moment and turn a game around. He’s been a great football player at Michigan and he’ll always be remembered as that.”
Make no mistake that Brady Hoke is a great coach. He knows that the Alabama coaches came to MSU for advice on stopping the Michigan offense. He has studied the MSU blue print over and over. In fact, he said about going back and looking at the Spartans success against Denard on tape, “You always do that. You always like to see what people have done and see if it worked. If it worked, then you want to find some ways to maybe attack it a little bit differently. At the same time, it’s guys getting off blocks. They do a good job of that. The flow of the football, they do a very good job of that. So, again, it goes back to the front on both sides of the ball if you want to be successful.”
When MSU is on defense, this is real simple. Keep Denard in the pocket and make him throw. As I said, he is a thrower, not a passer. With an improved WR and TE group that means you can’t let him sit in the pocket and wait for routes to open. When Denard has success in the air, it is when teams contain him, but don’t get pressure.
The MSU defense has struggled with pressure this season. If they do what they have done, keep him contained in the pocket and apply pressure, they will be fine.
MSU made a big mistake the week leading up to the OSU game. They didn’t go “live” in practice that week on Demtrious Cox who played the role of Miller. This week they moved Tony Lippett back over to play the Denard Robinson role, something he has done the past few years, along with Cox and they went live. That means the defense got better prepared for the speed of the game because they could hit whoever played the Denard role. That was a very big deal.
It’s a rivalry game. Records don’t matter once the game starts. It is about pride and emotion. Both teams have downplayed it in public, but it doesn’t change the reality of what is said and what goes in behind closed doors.
A big turnover, a special teams play, anything can change these games. This will be a physical contest between two teams that don’t like one another, but do respect each other. This will be bedlam.
This is one of those games that will be close and can turn on one play as mentioned above or a major coaching mistake. You may remember the 2009 game. UM came back at the end with a late TD. They had all the momentum after getting beat up the entire game and M Rod went for the tie. It was a dumb move. He should have gone for two and he would have won.
I said the same to him privately, but that is what I mean about a coaching decision. Every little small detail counts in games like this. This game calls for more precision than any orchestra playing a fine concerto and more detailed than the finest painting. This is exactly what makes the game of football the greatest game on planet earth.
As you enter Michigan Stadium on Saturday the smell of chlorophyll will be rising up to heaven like fine incense. People of all colors, creeds, and socio-economic backgrounds will gather. There will be republicans, democrats, independents, and every other group of people. On this day, in this state, they will all either be Blue or Green. Michigan or Michigan State. This game will be the topic of discussion at every Thanksgiving meal in the state, every Christmas gathering, and even every family reunion this summer.
It is personal for everyone. Babies will be named after the heroes who play in it, and people will be pushed to the epicenter of joy and anguish. This is what God intended football to be. An entire state shuts down for the glorious celebration of the pigskin.
Two teams battling over an oblong ellipsoid. Young men in peak shape, battle like behemoths’, fighting like warriors. This is the glorious game of football.
After seven games I have yet to see the MSU staff go on the attack. I think the job they have done at MSU has been nothing short of amazing. I think they have been a Godsend to the Spartan Nation. I just have not seen from them the willingness to abandon a philosophy in order to simply win the game.
I also have concerns with the play MSU is getting at DT. In the past, they have contained Denard, and applied the necessary pressure from the middle to make him throw quickly. This year they haven’t had as much success as in the past. Can that change? It sure can. Will it? After seven games you have to question. Getting Tyler Hoover back is gigantic.
If the Spartans go on the attack on offense I think they win. After seven games I have to see it to believe it.
I think in the end MSU loses in a squeaker to the Wolverines 24-20. Being wrong won’t bother me at all.